Looking back at an era of uncomplicated student life
Detraining at the Delhi railway station in June 1953, I had hired an exclusive horse-drawn Tonga and rode into the College portico, in style. There was time to wipe my brow and dust my shoes before my name was called by a functionary outside the Principal's office. Once inside, Dr. Raja Ram pointed to a chair, asked me to sit and then asked me, “Why do you want admission to St Stephen's?” That being an unexpected question, my response was perhaps unusual. “I am fascinated by the college campus, Sir.”
Now that was God's truth because a month earlier, my father had taken me around the four leading colleges of Delhi but had left the choice to me. Without further ado, the Principal turned to my school mark-sheet and said, “I notice that you scored a ‘distinction' (that is above 80 per cent), in history. Would you like to pursue the history honour's course?” And in the next breath, he allotted me a residential room on the ground-floor! I thanked him profusely, as my cup of happiness was full.
The history department was headed by Kapadia Sahib, a slight and spruced gentleman. He was also my tutor and guide for the entire three-year term. In the nature of instruction imparted, we met our tutor exclusively for 20-30 minutes once a fortnight in his chamber. This system was perhaps at the heart of the liberal and eclectic education which nurtured each Stephanian into an “individual.” The tutor looked upon each student as a different challenge to cope with. And the student felt uninhibited to clear his mind's cob-webs in the total absence of the peer-factor. For most of us, this was a most liberating and the greatest learning experience.
Our term began with a course in medieval European history and the Mughal period from Indian history. I guess it was natural that in our first meeting, Kapadia Sahib should enquire as to where I was headed in life. When I told him that a career in the Indian Army was my beacon, he was nonplussed. I promptly proffered that I needed to successfully complete at least a year in college, to fulfil the minimum education bar for entry into the armed forces. Now, besides assigning me one or more study projects each fortnight with an eye on the term-end examination, Kapadia Sahib also assumed responsibility to educate me on matters military! So the military achievements and failures of personalities, the likes of Catherine and Peter (The Greats of Russia), Bismarck and Fredrick (The Greats of Prussia) and of course Napoleon became my special, additional assignments. And from the Mughal period, Kapadia Sahib kept me focused on the horse cavalry and field artillery, the two dominant attributes of success of that dynasty in India. In fact, these latter tasks were discussed with me with greater fervour each fortnight, whereas the “study projects” were simply returned with his written counselling! Among his protégées who entered the armed forces were Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal, PVSM, DFC, and General Zia ul Haq (later President of Pakistan); President Zia never failed to send a basket of mangoes to Kapadia Sahib each year till his, Zia's, death in the mysterious air crash, in 1989.
Kapadia Sahib had unwittingly taught me the art of analytical reading as distinct from pleasure reading. One of my lingering regrets of life is that I had to leave college prematurely as else, I would have crossed the age for entry to the Indian Army.
(Lt.Gen. Baljit Singh lives in Chandigarh.)